A woman’s world

Excerpt from Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên

Photo by Tri Vo on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the epic poem Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên, translated from the Vietnamese by Timothy Allen.

Kiều now brims with a strange melancholy
till tiny pearls run down her cheeks.

‘A woman’s world is weaved from woe,’ she says,
’and the only thing we dream of is despair.
God rips off our wings. God makes us die.
Đạm Tiên, once a wished-for wife,
is now a bony basket of wormy earth.
Those boys are gone that used to hold her,
and the promises they made are fallen to silence.
Since no one is left to mourn for her,
I will burn these few sticks of incense
to mark how we have chanced upon her grave.
Perhaps she can see us, from her Yellow Springs.’

Then Kiềum murmurs a heartfelt prayer
and stoops to lay some grass upon the spot.
Twilight falls across the rotting weeds
and an evening breeze rustles the barley reeds.
She draws a pin from her hair and carves
a perfect four-line poem on a nearby tree.
She steps back. She clears her mind,
then melts into tears, like a squall of sudden rain.
She pictures herself alone on a dark night,
where shapeless horrors crowd the road ahead.
She is a petal on flowing water, a water fern
catching and drifting along a swollen stream.

Vân laughs and says: ‘My sister, how silly you are
to waste hot tears on a long-dead stranger.’

Kiều answers: ‘But since this earth began,
Cruel fate has cursed all women.
I look on Đạm Tiên’s mossy tomb,
and see my own, in days to come.’

Quan says: ‘So this is the real story.
You talk of Đạm Tiên, but weep for yourself.
Look, it’s getting dark. There is a chill in the air,
and we still have a long walk home.

‘When stars die, their fire is gone,’
says Kiều, ‘but a dwindling light shines on.
My soul has found its mate in this gloomy place.
Let’s wait a while. I want to meet her ghost.’

Before they can answer, a tornado swirls up.
It shakes the tree and tears off its leaves,
trailing a strange perfume in its wake.
They look along the path that the wind took
to find it left damp footprints on the moos.

Vân and Quan stare at each other, dumbfounded.

Kiều says: ‘See the fierce power of a poem.
Learn how words can leap across the years.
She is my sister, though I am alive and she is dead.’

Again she takes the pin from her hair
and adds a verse of thanks to Đạm Tiên.
This one is a word picture in the old style,
free from the shackles of rhyme and metre.

Have you read this epic poem?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Song of Kiều – Summary

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.

Copyright © 1820 by Du Nguyên.

Translated by: Timothy Allen (2019)

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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